Theft of radioactive material in Mexico and Georgia

Posted by () on Feb 28 2014
VERTIC Blog >> National Implementation Measures
Sonia Drobysz, London
On 24-25 March 53 States and 4 international organisations will convene in The Hague, Netherlands, for the third Nuclear Security Summit (NSS). The first Summit took place on 12-13 April 2010 in Washington DC, where world leaders committed to work together to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism and strengthen nuclear security. The latter focuses on the prevention and detection of, and response to, theft, sabotage, unauthorized access and illegal transfer or other malicious acts involving nuclear material and other radioactive substances and their associated facilities. Such malicious acts could involve attempts by a terrorist group to make a nuclear explosive device with nuclear material, or an improvised radiological dispersal device with a radioactive source.
The threat is not purely hypothetical. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which maintains an Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB) recording and analysing incidents of illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive material, recently noted that incidents reported to the ITDB over the period 1993-2012 ‘show that problems persist with regard to illicit trafficking (…) and with theft, losses and other unauthorized activities and events.’
Two NSS participating countries, Mexico and Georgia, recently experienced incidents involving radioactive material. On 4 December 2013, the IAEA reported that Mexico had notified the Agency’s Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) of the theft, on 2 December, of a truck carrying a cobalt-60 source used for cancer treatment and being transported from a hospital to a radioactive waste storage centre. Mexico’s national commission for nuclear safety and safeguards (Comisión Nacional de Seguridad Nuclear y Salvaguardias ‘CNSNS’) later informed the IAEA that Mexican law enforcement authorities had located the source on 4 December, in a field very close to where the truck had been stolen. On 12 December, the Agency revealed a federal robot was used to safely recover the source which had been removed from its protective shielding, but remained intact and undamaged.
A few days later, two individuals were arrested in Georgia after radium 226 was found in a lead container in the house basement of one of them. The Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs reported on 14 December on the arrest and detention of the two men, explaining ongoing investigation for the crime of ‘illegal handling of radioactive material with the attempt of its further realization’ was being conducted by the border police operative-investigative division. No further information was given about the origin of the material or its quantity.
According to the IAEA’s ranking of radioactive sources based on their potential to cause immediate harmful health effects, the source stolen in Mexico was a category 1 radioactive source. As explained in the IAEA Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources (Code of Conduct) which provides a basic governance framework for radioactive sources, category 1 sources are those which ‘if not safely managed or securely protected would be likely to cause permanent injury to a person who handled them, or were otherwise in contact with them, for more than a few minutes.’ When present above certain levels of activity and quantity thresholds, radium 226 would also be considered a category 1 source.
From a nuclear security and nuclear terrorism perspective, the risks associated with the thefts in Mexico and Georgia – which are not necessarily on the same in each case – should not be overestimated. Making a ‘dirty bomb’, which spreads radioactive material without a nuclear explosion, remains a difficult task. Mark Hibbs, a senior associate in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was interviewed by the Washington Post about the radioactive material on the loose in Mexico, explained it would ‘theoretically be possible’ to make a dirty bomb using cobalt 60, but ‘the stuff is incredibly hot. You could get a fatal dose in something like minutes if you hold it in your hand.’ It would also require equipment and expertise. Furthermore, the Mexican thieves denied knowledge of the radioactive cargo and had no known intention to misuse it. It has on the other hand been reported that the Georgian individuals allegedly tried to sell the material, even though ‘it is not known (…) whether they had any buyers in mind’.
What happened in Mexico and Georgia nevertheless highlights the importance of having adequate national measures in place to prevent, detect and respond to the thefts of nuclear and other radioactive material. Admittedly, the responsibility for nuclear security within a State rests entirely with that State. Mexico and Georgia however are parties to international legally binding texts such as the 1980 Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and 2005 International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT). Those instruments require States to adopt national implementation measures in their domestic legislation to criminalize certain acts involving nuclear material and radioactive material, enable international cooperation to prevent and counter preparations of those acts, ensure adequate physical protection of nuclear material.
Georgia and Mexico also made a political commitment to implement the non-binding IAEA Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources. Both countries have adopted nuclear laws establishing nuclear security as one of their objectives: Georgia’s Law on Nuclear and Radiation Safety, adopted in 2012 and repealing a previous version from 1998, and Mexico’s main nuclear law (the Procedural Law of Article 27 of the Constitution on Nuclear Matters), revised in 2012. Other relevant implementing legislation may include the national criminal codes, laws on export-import control, terrorism laws, etc.
Preventing nuclear incidents implies having adequate measures in the national legal framework to secure nuclear and other radioactive material, including establishing a competent authority responsible for nuclear security, setting up a comprehensive and rigorous licensing system for the management of radioactive sources, and adopting a national register of radioactive sources. The transport of such sources should also be secured and done by sufficiently equipped vehicles. Juan Eibenschutz Hartman, Director General of the CNSNS, has reportedly explained that the truck stolen in Mexico ‘wasn't properly set up to transport the radioactive material, since it didn't have a GPS for tracking or other necessary equipment.’
Relevant national authorities should then be given the necessary powers to detect nuclear incidents when they could not be prevented. The Mexican case has shown that an emergency system developed by the national nuclear regulatory authority may prove very useful: the CNSNS informed the public of the incident and made available an emergency telephone number to facilitate the communication of any relevant information to track down the lost source. As explained by the CNSNS in a news release, communication with the IAEA and between the various entities involved at the national level was important; it should also be provided for in the national legislation.
Response to malicious acts such as thefts should finally be ensured, especially through prosecution of the offenders. In that respect, Georgia indicated that the alleged thieves would be prosecuted under article 230 of Georgia's Criminal Code, which criminalizes the ‘illegal handling of nuclear material or device, radioactive waste, or other source of ionising exposure’. That includes the ‘illicit purchase, keeping, possessing or disposal (…) transferring, transporting, export and import, sale or other illegal handling of or any other deal related to (…) source of radioactive or ionising exposure, as well as equipment, installation, tool or device of whatever kind and for whatever purpose, containing radioactive substance, or any other source of ionising exposure’.
It is worth noting that unfortunately, the international legal framework does not establish as offences the theft of radioactive sources as occurred in Mexico and Georgia. The CPPNM obliges its states parties to criminalize the theft of nuclear material as defined in the convention, which does not cover all types of radioactive material. ICSANT does criminalize acts involving radioactive material, but only possession and use, with the intent to achieve particular results listed in the convention (cause death or serious bodily injury, cause substantial damage to property or to the environment, or compel a natural or legal person, an international organisation or a state to do or refrain from doing an act). In the absence of comprehensive criminal legislation going beyond the provisions of the existing international treaties, States may not be able to adequately prosecute the offenders or may have to do so based on general grounds such as theft or robbery which do not emphasize the gravity of a crime committed with nuclear or other radioactive material.
Such gaps in the international legal framework could be addressed by a forum such as the NSS. The universalization of the existing instruments, as well as their effective national implementation will also hopefully be recognized as important priorities by the officials gathered in The Hague at the end of the month.

Last changed: Feb 28 2014 at 5:41 PM